Doha, Qatar – It has been almost a week since negotiators arrived back in Doha to resume a second round of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with a United States team talking separately to both sides.
But top Afghan government officials and Taliban leaders have been conspicuous by their absence from this round of meetings.
On the Taliban side, chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Hakim and the head of the Taliban office in Qatar, Mullah Baradar, have not yet returned from their trip to Pakistan.
In recent weeks, US diplomats and military leaders have also visited Pakistan. In a meeting between Pakistan’s military and acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey, the two sides discussed an urgent need for a reduction in violence in Afghanistan.
Islamabad insists it is “playing a positive role and its leadership is committed to helping Afghans find a solution” through talks.
Meanwhile, US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and his entourage have returned to Doha after brief stopovers in Islamabad and Kabul.
An Afghan official told Al Jazeera “the committee members are in Qatar and others are arriving as the talks proceed”.
“We are ready and prepared for the talks, there is no delay from [us] and no new proposals have been conveyed to us,” Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem told Al Jazeera.
Those close to the talks said the sense of urgency from either side to find common ground, reduce violence and move forward seems to be missing in the current round of negotiations.
The second round of intra-Afghan talks started this evening during a preparatory meeting. In the meeting, it was decided that the teams appointed by the two sides to discuss the agenda topics would begin their work next Saturday to discuss the issues on the agenda
— Dr.M.Naeem (@IeaOffice) January 6, 2021
New US administration
The reason for a lack of urgency in the continuing talks is being attributed to the change in the US administration led by President-elect Joe Biden and their policy on Afghanistan.
Biden will inherit a situation where just 2,500 US soldiers will be left in Afghanistan after the outgoing Trump administration ordered an accelerated withdrawal of troops.
Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor-designate for Biden’s administration, recently said the US will support diplomacy along the lines of the US-Taliban peace deal signed in February last year to ensure “Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists to attack the US”.
The first round of talks, which kicked off in September, ended in December after the two sides agreed on procedural rules.
A road map for post-war Afghanistan is part of the agenda for the latest round of talks which opened on Tuesday.
During his trip to Kabul, US special envoy Khalilzad met Afghanistan’s national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib, foreign minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar and other leaders, but President Ashraf Ghani did not meet him.
While scheduling issues and health concerns were cited as reasons, people close to the presidency said Khalilzad’s discussions on an interim government – a longstanding Taliban demand – has not gone down well with Ghani.
Khalilzad was praised for his shuttle diplomacy during the signing of the US-Taliban deal, which paved the way for intra-Afghan dialogue. But the pace of progress has slowed, with record violence in the war-torn country.
Members of the Afghan government delegation in Doha say the US diplomatic team led by Khalilzad has conceded too much to the Taliban.
Sources in the Afghan presidency say the Ghani administration released 5,000 Taliban prisoners at the insistence of the US, but there has been no reduction in violence.
But there has been a spike in violence during the past few months – including targeted killings of officials, activists and journalists – blamed by the Afghan government and the US on the Taliban.
Sources added that a further release of thousands of more prisoners in exchange for a short-term ceasefire is an option on the table.
A source close to the president told Al Jazeera that if releasing prisoners brings an end to violence and paves the way for a permeant ceasefire, then Ghani could avail such an opportunity.
An alternative deal that sees more Taliban prisoners freed alongside an extension of the Ghani government’s tenure could possibly work, according to officials close to the talks.
But, despite the outgoing Trump administration pushing for a ceasefire agreement before it leaves office on January 20, there has been a lukewarm response from the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The Taliban said that – as per its agreement with the US – the reduction of violence is incumbent on the release of prisoners, as well as the removal of their names from global financial blacklists.
End to violence?
According to the US-Taliban deal, all American soldiers are supposed to leave Afghanistan by April.
But more recently, the Pentagon has hinted that the Taliban had not met pledges to reduce violence or taken concrete steps to sever links with al-Qaeda.
The US government’s plan to fully withdraw its forces from Afghanistan has even faced criticism from Republicans at home and NATO’s secretary-general.
But the stakes are high if the US decides to alter its plans to leave Afghanistan, with the likely result being yet more violence.
Although almost all victims of the recent increase in violence have been Afghans, the Taliban has insisted that it is fighting a foreign occupation and those who help it.
Before the breakthrough talks, one Taliban leader told Al Jazeera, “My father was a fighter, I fought against the Soviets and then the US occupation. If the occupiers fail to see that they must leave, my children will fight them as well.”
Both Taliban and government leaders have said that these talks are a “unique, historic opportunity” for Afghans to solve their differences.
Future generations will judge them on whether they succeed or fail.
For now, both sides are biding their time.